West Country Bylines has previously reported on the government’s culture war against perceived left-wing or liberal bias in the arts, cultural heritage and higher education sectors. In October 2020, Virginia Button outlined government pressure on arts institutions and museums to toe the line on their involvement in contested reassessments of British colonial history, at the risk of losing public funding if they do not comply. Meanwhile, Mick Fletcher has recently highlighted the hypocrisy of the government’s latest plans to ‘censor’ the arts and culture sector, while planning to ‘censure’ and even fine universities and students’ unions for the ‘no-platforming’ of speakers with controversial or offensive views.
What we know so far is that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson wishes to appoint a higher education ‘free speech champion’ to the regulatory Office for Students in order to counter “the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring” and, furthermore, that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is to convene a roundtable discussion on 22 February with leading museums and cultural institutions to tell them to “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
In light of these developments, it was unsurprising to see actor and political activist Laurence Fox take the opportunity in the Express on 14 February to promote his Reclaim Party’s mission to defend Britain’s democracy, culture and freedom of speech “against censorship and the emerging trend of extreme political correctness”. His comment piece outlines his party’s key commitments, including a legal review of the Equality Act (2010) and the online harms bill, the withdrawal of taxpayers’ money from institutions seeking to revise British history, educational reform of schools to ensure children are taught to speak their minds, preventing universities from de-platforming speakers and the de-politicisation of our public services. Who knew our public servants were so hamstrung by the obligation “to conform to new and fashionable political ideologies”?
His plans amount to a curtailment of any mechanism that serves to protect minority and vulnerable groups from the negative effects of unfettered freedom of speech and opinion. Yet to paint the issue in such black and white terms is remarkably short-sighted and taps into other zero-sum populist narratives – for example:
- complete national sovereignty: good; international cooperation on defence or economics: bad;
- Hong-Kongers escaping Chinese oppression: our duty to protect; other asylum seekers fleeing persecution: exploiting Britain.
There must be a scale of what it is acceptable to say and write in public, and blanket freedom of speech allows dangerous fanatics to spread malicious lies. We must be mindful of the lessons of the Irving v Lipstadt libel case concerning Holocaust denial, which prevented pseudo-historical re-evaluation from undermining decades of valuable academic research into the Nazi death camps. When extremist views are given a public platform, there are, inevitably, vulnerable groups that will reap the whirlwind. The recent report of black and LGBT students from Edinburgh University ambushed by racist and homophobic abuse during a Zoom meeting demonstrates how damaging words can be. When freedom of speech is used as a tool to spread dangerous disinformation, promote discrimination, cause suffering or incite violence, it is right for any just society to investigate this as criminal behaviour on the grounds that it may cause public harm.
In Fox’s view, however, current restrictions on freedom of speech mean that we are missing the real victims in our society: from those who have merely sought to investigate the Rotherham grooming gangs (read Stephen Yaxley-Lennon?), to those who have been dismissed for expressing the wrong (presumably offensive) views, not to mention those ‘unfairly ostracised’ anti-lockdown scientists.
In particular, Fox aims much of his criticism at “censorious, no-platforming graduates” and, clearly, from his reference to “statues (…) torn from their plinths”, Black Lives Matter protesters, who apparently “cancel and silence others”.
So, let’s examine some of Fox’s claims in more detail and with the objective analysis that forms part of any undergraduate degree.
Fox asserts: “Our culture is under attack like never before. Plagues of censorious, no-platforming graduates are spawned year on year from our universities. Graduates so intellectually fragile that they simply cannot come to terms with the idea that anyone may think differently to them.”
First, exactly which culture is being attacked? British culture is not a homogenous entity, but an ever-evolving amalgamation of past and present beliefs, stories, customs and traditions belonging to the peoples of these islands and beyond. Suppressing a culture is not at all easy, as the Chinese authorities are demonstrating by their use of ‘re-education’ camps and mass surveillance to suppress Uighur dress, customs, religion and language. That is a culture under attack. Is British cultural identity (whatever that is) so weak that it can be so easily at risk from the likes of Black Lives Matter protests and cultural institutions, which seek only to start a long-overdue dialogue on the portrayal of Britain’s colonial past?
As for the ‘intellectual fragility’ of graduates who cannot stomach the idea of alternative views, some clarity is needed on the source and substance of the views in question. For example, when studying the causes of 9/11, the consideration of robust research and fact-based assessments is par for the course, but not the myriad of extreme and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories which continue to plague the internet (unless, of course, your purpose is to investigate psychological responses or representations in popular culture).
In fact, as any graduate knows, universities actively encourage original thinking and rigorous debate; what academics do object to is non-fact-based hyperbole or mythmaking, which seek to cloak a prejudiced agenda in the legitimacy of free speech. So if you cite unverified sources or suspect facts in your argument, then you’ll – rightly – be laughed out of your seminar.
Fox continues: “Instead of learning how to think, they are taught what to think. Unprepared to face a world of different dreams and the different stories that populate it; unable to cope with the dissonance between ideology and reality.”
It is ironic that Fox mentions ideology here in the sense that he is able to acknowledge the ideological leanings of others and yet appears oblivious to his own. He might be intrigued to learn that studying any aspect of the humanities or social sciences involves assessing the various theoretical and ideological approaches inherent in the subject itself. Indeed, history students soon realise that identifying and producing objective history (aside from mundane facts) is incredibly challenging. This is because much historical analysis is overtly presented through the lens of one perspective or another – be it feminist, socialist, postmodern, postcolonial, and so on – not to mention that we are each influenced by our own unconscious biases. Students of all disciplines, including the sciences, have to learn to interrogate the validity of sources and the robustness of previous research and data, so that few graduates leave university without at least a rudimentary grounding in objectivity versus partiality and a grasp of the prerequisites of solid fact-based research. With all this to factor in to their essays, graduates are perfectly able to distinguish ideology from reality.
Turning to the growing participation of young people in the Black Lives Matter and other social movements, Fox asserts: “The children of this new religion gather in mobs online and on the streets to protest about the alleged horrors that lurk in your mind and in mine. They stand in petulant indignation at the lack of interest in their cause. So they cancel and silence others. Statues are torn from their plinths by these shiny new historians, hell bent on telling off the past. (…)”
If there really were a lack of interest in the anti-racism cause, then perhaps Fox would not feel the need to attack them so vociferously. In so far as mobs go, it is laughable that the pulling-down of one statue in Bristol, which has long been controversial amongst locals, and a spate of well-attended, largely peaceful rallies last summer, could be likened to the rise of a violent counter-culture in the vein of fascist mob rule; likewise, in the online sphere.
Furthermore, how is it that those of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, or campaigning on their behalf, can be accused of silencing others when the history of this country, and of all former colonial powers, has traditionally been presented from the top-down perspective of those in power – predominantly upper-class white men? This is the first time that BAME communities, whose experiences have long been ignored in historical narratives, have felt empowered to assert their identities en masse and call for a much-needed review of representations of British colonialism and its key figures. This is not reprimanding history; it is a long-overdue acknowledgment that by addressing the UK’s past involvement in subjugation, slavery and overlooking those ‘other’ histories, we can begin the process of establishing real inclusivity, equality and compassion for all members of our society. It could be considered a sign of the coming-of-age of our nation.
Finally, for this article, let’s consider this statement from Fox: “We can only affect this moment, right now. New rituals prevail: kneeling in submission; confession of sins real or imagined. This is not Britain. This is not what the majority of Britons think. This is the tyranny of the over-amplified minority.”
The key point here must be Fox’s claim to speak for the masses, to represent the prevailing views of the people of this country – none of which is possible for any political movement. There is a frightening ring to this statement, particularly in his use of the phrase “tyranny of the (…) minority”. It is the hallmark of authoritarian governments to exclude and vilify minority groups on the grounds that they threaten the rights and wellbeing of the majority. If this is not what Fox means, then he ought to choose his words more carefully, since proto-fascists will gleefully take him at his word.
There is a great deal of contradiction in the party’s mission statement as a whole. Fox promises to “champion freedom of speech”, then in the same breath he censures BAME activists who dare to exercise theirs. Similarly, he declares it a government duty to “protect the rights of every citizen”, including “the most vulnerable”, before condemning as “extreme political correctness” the laws and social norms that safeguard vulnerable minorities against discrimination and hate speech.
Returning to the belligerent headline of Laurence Fox’s Express article, Woke so intellectually fragile they can’t handle anyone thinking differently, perhaps it might be apt to use some reverse psychology to turn this statement on its head. Could it be that, as ethnically, culturally and gender-diverse young Britons slowly awaken to our history and engage others in painful but necessary conversations in grown-up arenas of inquiry, it is in fact Laurence Fox who doesn’t possess the acumen or maturity to accept that young people in Britain today are embracing different ideals to his? In campaigning to take back ownership of British identity and culture through politics, he is attempting to ‘reclaim’ what is not his alone (or indeed anyone’s) to define and possess.